The Power of Risk: Producers Glen Murakami and Mitch Watson Talk ‘Beware the Batman’
If you’ve cocked an eyebrow at the preview material that’s been floating around the Internet in advance of Beware the Batman‘s premiere this Saturday at 10 a.m. ET on Cartoon Network, thinking it doesn’t match your conception of what a Batman cartoon typically looks like, then Warner Bros. Animation producers Glen Murakami and Mitch Watson have got you right where they want you. The look, the music, the fact that very few villains who have appeared on Batman TV shows before now, it’s all intentional.
With that in mind, ComicsAlliance spent some time talking with the two producers over the phone about how they conceived the show, their influences, and what the benefits are to taking some big risks.
ComicsAlliance: We just saw the opening credits sequence for the show last week. It’s got this kind of stark color palette to it. It’s also very kinetic. Is that sort of a mission statement for the show? Can we expect the show to look and feel like that?
Glen Murakami: The show will look more like the teaser trailer. The title sequence was designed to be more stylized and more graphic, but the cool thing is it’s, “Hey, look, it’s CG,” it’s moving around kind of counter to its flatter, more graphic style. It was a decision to sort of do a variation on the kinds of stuff that we had maybe done in the past.
I, personally, like stuff that’s stylized and graphic, but it was nice to do the contrast of what the series would look like versus what the title sequence would be.
Mitch Watson: The vibe of the show when we set out to do it was we sort of wanted this late ’60s/ early ’70s kind of vibe. A lot of the movies Glen and I really like are from that era. A lot of the title sequences from the shows of that era were the genesis for that opening title sequence, to get across the vibe of, this is not going to be like some of the past shows you’ve seen. There’s a mood to the show. There’s also a fun aspect to the show as well, hence the song by the Dum Dum Girls. Glen found them.
CA: Let’s talk about the theme song. It’s got a feel that’s not completely in line with what people like me are used to. I grew up with Batman: The Animated Series and are used to that very orchestrated, horns-and-strings-heavy kind of music. And now I’m familiar with the Hans Zimmer score to the Christopher Nolan movies. This has got a whole different feel.
GM: It’s lo-fi, ’60s-inspired, kind of rock music. British Invasion indie rock. That’s all the stuff I like. When Mitch and I talked about the show, we said we’re going to focus on aspects of the show that we felt like people hadn’t seen with Batman. We focused more on ’70s detective and cop shows, but it’s also kind of a Bond/spy film, too.
MW: Yeah. Another thing we also said very early on, which goes to what you were just saying about Hans Zimmer and stuff like that, was we said we specifically didn’t want to do that. Glen and I, from the very beginning, we were obsessed with going much more minimalistic with the music. More soundscapes than actual orchestration.
Specifically, we looked at bands like Hooverphonic and Trent Reznor’s music for The Social Network. It was an active and very specific choice not to do the big, bombastic John Williams or Hans Zimmer-type scores. When we went to Frederik Wiedmann, who did the music for the show, that was sort of the marching order we gave him. One of the things we did very early on, when we started listening to the music, was we’d literally go into Freddy’s scores and just take out instruments. We just took stuff out until we got down to the core of what we wanted to do. We very consciously wanted it to have a different sound than the other shows.
GM: I think when Batman: The Animated Series was done, the feel was to do a ’40s, film-noir thing. [Composer] Shirley Walker did have a full orchestra. They tried to make the most of that in presenting a cartoon you hadn’t seen that way before. Since then, so much of that has been done with the character, it was like, well, let’s do something else with the character.
We talked about all of these other bands, but a lot of the feel for the show was, how do make a modern film noir? How do we make something that feels a little bit more contemporary? How do we do a Batman not as deco, but not as dark as the Nolan direction?
CA: When I look at the logo for the show and the design of Batman himself, I immediately think of Bill Finger. You talk about the ’60s and ’70s, but this looks so much like that classic Batman style.
GM: OK, cool.
CA: Was that a big, big part of the inspiration?
GM: No, I don’t think so [laughs]. I’m a big fan of all of that different stuff, but I think we tried to look outside for visual influence more than we were looking at the comics themselves. We were like, what aspects of the character do we feel need to be there for Batman? We discussed all that, we agreed upon that, then we said, OK, great. Then we just ran off in all these other directions, because we felt like we needed to bring something to the character we felt like hadn’t been done before.
CA: Speaking of things that haven’t been done before, with with exception of Ra’s al-Ghul, all the villains I’ve seen listed or in the teaser are not villains I have seen outside of comics, in a cartoon or anywhere else.
GM: That’s cool, right?
CA: Yeah, but it seems a little risky.
MW: That’s a good thing, quite honestly, to take that risk. We’ve been given a chance to do this. If we just played it safe and did what’s been done before, and didn’t take risks, it’s not worth it, really. I’ve been working on this particular show for three years. Glen’s been working on it for two years. It’s a large part of our lives. If you don’t take a risk, it just becomes sort of a job. There’s nothing invested in it. It’s not worth it. It’s not worth the time and effort.
GM: In the beginning, when we developing [the series], I grabbed all of these Batman comics and I was looking through them. I sort of felt like it’s getting to be the same thing over and over and over again. Even the character dynamics and relationships seemed like they were sort of the same thing. It seemed like it was going to be the same thing. We asked, can we start from this different place?
By doing that, it sort of put a slightly different spin on the character. When Mitch and I were discussing the stories, it was like, yeah, but we need to somehow figure out things to make it more Batman, but with these new characters.
MW: We wanted the villains not to just be these sort of be shoved into stories. Every time we put a villain in the show, it wasn’t just to stick a new villain in. It was specifically to bring out a new aspect of Batman or Bruce Wayne’s personality. Every villain we stuck in the show, there was a reason they were in those particular episodes. That’s why you’re not going to see a bunch of episodes that are about bank robberies or those kinds of things that are more traditional stories.
We tried to be more about the characters. What was going on with Bruce Wayne, what was going on with Batman, and what was going on with Alfred, for that matter. And what was going on with these villains. Yeah, they’re bad people, but you want to have a bit of sympathy for them in some ways. To do that, you have to peel back the layers of their personalities.
GM: The challenge was how we take some of these lesser Batman villains and bring them up to the level of the old rogues’ gallery. It was really difficult, but I think it was a lot of fun doing that. What was cool about it, too, was it brought out different aspects of Batman I think you haven’t seen before. Just to see his interaction with different villains makes it interesting.
CA: I feel like Magpie had to be a real puzzle to get to that level.
GM: Actually, I thought that was the kind of the breakthrough character.
MW: What we found with Magpie, and fortunately, she’s the second villain up, so we got there relatively quickly, was that she’s the perfect example of a character that allowed us to sort of mirror some of the things we want to do with Bruce Wayne and Batman. Like Batman, she is a character who is struggling with the duality of her nature.
One of the aspects we were developing early on with the character of Bruce Wayne was, we said, OK, we want this to be a guy who essentially has three distinct personalities. There’s the public Bruce Wayne, who’s sort of like Richard Branson — that’s the model we used — who everybody likes. He’s altruistic. People really enjoy him. Then there’s the private Bruce Wayne. That’s the side that only really Alfred gets to see, the more introspective, almost OCD type of person who’s looking for control of his life. And then you have Batman, which is sort of pushing that version of Bruce Wayne even further.
What we said was, basically, because of how Bruce Wayne was hard-wired from a child, because of what happened to his parents, he developed this ability that he couldn’t turn off, which is that he saw crime everywhere. Everywhere he looked. He could never relax. It began to build on him. What happened was, he began to see himself slipping away as a person. Batman was his release valve. Without Batman there can’t be Bruce Wayne; without Bruce Wayne, there can’t be Batman. They sort of balance each other out.
Then he meets Magpie, who’s a character who is dealing with many of the same things, only she’s losing the fight. So that story we tell with Magpie is a real eye-opener for Bruce and for Batman, because he sees what can happen if he doesn’t maintain these two identities for himself.
GM: Also, in doing that, we kind of went, well, this villain is very similar to this other villain. It’s still within the same vein as this rogues’ gallery character or this rogues’ gallery character. We knew we were headed in the right direction. It wasn’t just a carbon copy of Catwoman with a different costume. We knew this was cool because you couldn’t do these kinds of stories with Catwoman. She’s a completely different character. But it still fit a film noir/detective kind of story.
We were thinking about that and the themes of the original rogues’ gallery, but we weren’t going to do these Dick Sprang stories with a giant typewriter. We tried to figure out how to do that in a modern way.
CA: There’s been a lot of discussion about one particular villain appearing on this show, because in the comics he’s a very violent, sadistic, seemingly difficult-to-adapt character into a TV cartoon show. That’s Professor Pyg. How much of a challenge was he?
GM: I think the root of that character is there. We just toned it down.
MW: Obviously, we couldn’t do a lot of the stuff that was in the Grant Morrison comic books, in terms of what he does to people. It’s very interesting. That particular character, I think, it worked on the page, at first, but when the actors [Brian George as Professor Pyg and Udo Kier as Mister Toad] came in and did the voices, it really brought those two guys alive. We were able to take the craziness and insanity of Professor Pyg, you just don’t see a lot of the violence, just because we can’t do it. We can’t show him burning people’s faces off and sticking masks on them and stuff.
But we can show other aspects. Those two characters became big favorites of everybody who worked on the show. If you don’t show the blood-and-gore kind of stuff, they’re really fun, sort of colorful characters. Professor Pyg is not too dissimilar, in many respects, except for the violence. Mister Toad we changed a bit to make them a team and have more fun with them.
GM: I think the characters are misguided characters that just think they’re correct. They think they’re right. That’s the aspect of the character we captured. Take the character and distill it down into a key component. That’s what we tried to do.